Amid claims by accusers that Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno “failed” a psychological assessment, the House Committee on Justice summoned Dr. Geraldine Tria at the conclusion of the impeachment hearings last week. As the supposed “expert witness” or amicus curiae, Tria was invited to scrutinize the results of the psychological evaluation made by Judicial and Bar Council appointed psychiatrists six years ago when she w as being considered by the Council for the top judicial post. Tria, who had never met the CJ, based her supposed findings on 2012 and 2014 Manila Times articles claiming Sereno had gotten a “grade of 4” from psychiatrists of the JBC. She also made use of contemporary news reports on the actuations of the Chief’s Justice.
Tria’s assessment was not positive. According to her, Sereno manifested “grandiosity, unlimited power, sense of entitlement, interpersonally exploitative in order to take advantage of others in order to achieve his or her end, lack of empathy and sensitiveness to the needs of other members in the community.” When asked whether she would recommend the CJ for the post, Tria firmly said that she is not recommendable.
Tria’s credentials as a clinical psychologist may have been established, but her appearing before the Committee to divulge in public confidential information raised serious concerns over the ethical propriety of her actuation and even the reliability of her interpretation. Likewise, the Committee on Justice violated the basic constitutional rights of Sereno by giving Tria legislative immunity and allowing her to violate the ethics of her profession in the guise of a higher constitutional priority.
How a psychologist could even dare to make a recommendation for someone aspiring for a judicial post is itself problematic. But even within the confines of the psychology profession, there was universal rejection of the Tria assessment.
Psychological evaluation is not only highly confidential but in this case its evidentiary value is dubious at best. As pointed out by Arsenio Alianan Jr., an Ateneo de Manila professor and one of the country’s top experts on psychological assessment for employment, such evaluations are fit for specific purposes and not intended to necessarily qualify or disqualify people from jobs. In an interview with Rappler, Alianan observed that the supposed nine “signs of mental disturbance” used by Tria remains a puzzle to psychologists a it is not clear where she was coming from.
The Psychological Association of the Philippines, in a strongly worded statement, emphatically clarified that assessments done several years back may be valid then but may not be completely reflective of the person’s present functioning. This may be true with Sereno’s six-year psychological evaluation. As far back as 2016, the PAP came out with a clarification about the nature and purpose of psychology as a scientific discipline and professional practice. This was prompted when some candidates began to question the psychological make up of then-presidential candidate, now president, Rodrigo Duterte.
In its statement, the PAP said that psychological evaluation results should not be utilized as a means of undermining the character of any person, private or public. Second, psychologists in the practice of their profession should respect an individual’s right to privacy and confidential communications. Third, the ethical practice of basing assessment decisions and recommendations on data and test results that are updated and relevant to the current purpose. Finally, the PAP explained that the usage of the term “psycho test” is misleading in that it creates the impression that psychological tests are the only tools used in diagnosing mental illnesses and psychological disorders. The fact is, according to the statement, mental health professionals (e.g., psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, etc.) are the ones who diagnose with the use of various assessment methods, not solely on the basis of results from psychological tests. This statement by the PAP remains true today as it was two years ago.
Tria’s public disclosure is antithetical to the guiding principles that her profession stands for. Her public disclosures not only violated the highly confidential nature of the information but grossly disrespected and totally degraded the person of the chief justice. It is a clear violation of the Code of Ethics for Philippine Psychologists (2009) which avows respect for the unique worth and inherent dignity of all human being; privacy for individuals; protection of confidentiality of personal information; and fairness and justice in the treatment of persons. For many, her testimony amounts to malpractice which calls for a disciplinary action that the PAP or any other relevant regulatory body must act on.
Tria must not be allowed to hide behind the veil of legislative immunity to disparage, degrade and dishonor the Chief Justice, or any other person subject of legislative proceedings for that matter, whose rights are likewise constitutionally protected and guaranteed. Condemnation of her peers might be sufficient for now. The further debunking of her testimony when impeachment goes to the Senate will further expose her testimony to criticism and with the whole country watching. In the senate, she will not have the protection and the kid-gloves treatment that was given her in the House Committee on Justice.
The psychological test results of Sereno are of course not a ground for impeachment. For all intents and purposes, Sereno qualified as chief justice of the highest court. She not only met the qualifications set by the Constitution but was chosen by President Aquino, the duly constituted authority, from the list of three nominees prepared by the Council. There is nothing irregular in there except in the minds of her accusers. We can safely assume that the JBC took into account the psychological evaluation, among other criteria.
This week, the House Committee on Justice is expected to vote the articles of impeachment out of the committee and endorse these to the plenary of the House. The latter is expected to approve these articles and send the case to trial to the Senate. The trial will supposed begin only in July, as May and June will be a time for pre-trial and preliminary motions. In this regard, the decision of Chief Justice Sereno to go on indefinite leave from the Supreme Court is a good and positive thing. In my view, rather than had the unfortunate situation of her colleagues compelling her to do it, she should have voluntarily chosen to do this earlier when it became clear that the impeachment effort against her was serious.
When the whole government machinery is used against you, one cannot afford to be distracted by multiple battle fronts. In the impeachment fight, there are several audiences to address, but the most important are the Senate and the public. Her colleagues in the Court are also important but her approach there has to be personal, to constantly reach out and not to be combative; after all, when this is over, and she survives impeachment as I believe she will, the Chief Justice must reach out to her colleagues in reconciliation. This applies as well to her supporters, many of whom are demonizing those whom they think are against Sereno and undermining the independence of the judiciary. That too is not helpful and could even result in even greater erosion of support for the Chief Justice among her colleagues. Her colleagues know that all eyes are on them. Senator Sonny Trillanes has already warned them that if they move unconstitutionally against Sereno, that they themselves would be subject to impeachment by the next administration.
What is sad about this affair is that it is all so predictable. I had warned about this when the Aquino administration moved everything to impeach and convict CJ Corona. Now it is Sereno’s turn. If this succeeds with her, no chief justice or associate justice will ever be safe again, including those who would turn against Sereno now. We will end up with a Supreme Court whose make up would change with every new president. One hopes it does not come to that.
Facebook: Professor Tony La Viña (deantonylavs)